diamond geezer

 Monday, May 10, 2010

When Prime Ministers retire

To prevent embarrassing accusations of expense-fiddling, Prime Ministers already have a second home. An official bolthole in the folds of the Chilterns, an hour's drive from the rabbit warren of Downing Street. Ideal when the weekend comes round, well-suited for relaxation, perfect for entertaining. It's Chequers - a Tudor mansion set in a 1500 acre estate to the south of Aylesbury. The house was given to the nation in 1917 by Arthur Lee, who noted that modern lowborn Prime Ministers often lacked their own country pile, and felt it would be only right to donate his own. Lloyd George was the first to take advantage, Maggie adored the place, and even Gordon Brown eventually fell for the estate's rural charms. But Chequers isn't quite as secluded as you might expect, and the general public are welcome to wander across (specially selected) parts of the grounds. Walking boots on, let's go see.

Whiteleaf CrossTo snoop on the Prime Minister, you need to walk the Ridgeway. I took the train to Princes Risborough and hiked six miles to Wendover, with Chequers scheduled approximately halfway between the two. The route was nothing special to begin with, then headed rapidly uphill (field, umpteen steps, slope) to give extensive scenic views. The woods on the ridge were full of bluebells - a typical Chiltern springtime treat [photo]. But the weather remained firmly mediocre, which may be why I bumped into surprisingly few other ramblers in the early stages. Only when the path neared a car park did the dog exercisers appear - their charges leaping off through the undergrowth with breathy abandon. At Whiteleaf a large chalk cross has been carved into the hillside, although it was impossible to discern properly from the Ridgeway above. Instead I enjoyed a murky vista across the Vale of Aylesbury - its patchwork of fields as flat as an open sea lapping up against inland cliffs. And on, past the only pub on route, round an Iron Age fort and past some snoozing sheep.

Chequers, from the RidgewayAround a wood, through a gate, and suddenly there was Chequers. A red-brick stately home commanding its own private valley, across which members of the public are grudgingly permitted to pass. But not too close. A low metal fence along the edge of the intervening field discouraged closer inspection, as did a reminder that "this is a protected site under Section 128 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005." The Ridgeway path skirts the estate, never closer than quarter of a mile from the front door, not that this was ever completely visible. I kept thinking I must be being watched by someone across the ploughed furrows, but maybe security's only hyped up when the PM's actually at home.

Somewhat improbably, the footpath then passed directly across Gordon's private drive. No force on earth, not even the combined nervousness of MI5, can defeat a "public right of way". Their only defence was a very black camera on a very black post combined with two very black speakers. I didn't see it move, but I felt it burning into my private datafile. The approach road is officially called Victory Drive, after Churchill had beech trees planted all the way along its length [photo]. There was no excuse to linger, nor even anything to see through the trees even if I had, not unless some politician had suddenly whisked through the gatehouse in a limo.

Coombe Hill monumentOne final glimpse of Chequers, one more snooping CCTV sentinel, and then back up into the woods. Thousands of bluebells carpeted the ridge, like a blue army advancing to lay siege to the stronghold below. Symbolic, perhaps, we'll see. But slightly wilted, past their prime, their moment passed. Symbolic, perhaps, we'll see. The occasional mountain biker walked past, pushing their wheels uphill. I followed the path through the beechwoods, still rarely interrupted, until finally emerging on the upper escarpment of Coombe Hill. This is one of the Chilterns' finest viewpoints, crowned by a flame-topped obelisk commemorating losses in the Boer War. Such a good viewpoint, in fact, that the back garden at Chequers was clearly visible looking back towards Pulpit Hill. Had Gordon been out playing croquet, or had there been some visiting politician supping Pimms on the lawn, a decent zoom lens would surely have captured the action. The PM's refuge is oh so nearly private, but not quite.

Gordon will miss Chequers, I'm sure, assuming he and the family never get to spend another weekend in its ten-bedroom luxury. David, if he gets the keys, will be rather better accustomed to stately living given his family background. Or maybe Nick will end up staying here, as a sweetener in the current coalition bargaining discussions. But whichever politician hides away in Chequers next, don't forget you can always come down and nearly see them.

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